Arkansas Football: Breaking Down the Razorbacks' 2014 Schedule
The odd-numbered years are always the toughest for the Arkansas Razorbacks.
It's in the odd-numbered years that the Hogs have road games at Alabama and LSU, and not to mention Ole Miss. Next season is still loaded with top-tier programs, but most of the really tough games are in Arkansas for the Razorbacks.
Head coach Bret Bielema and his staff have much work to do over the next eight months leading up to the start of next year. If Arkansas can make strides during the offseason, it could have a much better campaign in 2014 than it did this year.
With that said, here's a breakdown of the Razorbacks' 2014 schedule and the possible outcome.
This year, the Razorbacks began the season with three-straight games against weaker opponents. While it allowed the Hogs to work on their game, it didn't prepare them for the killer schedule that comes along with being in the SEC.
Arkansas immediately begins the 2014 slate with a huge test at Auburn, which could be the defending national champions.
After the first three games this past season, the Hogs didn't really know where they stood in relation to the high-caliber teams they would face. They will know that from the start with their trip to Auburn next season, which is actually on Aug. 30.
A lot of people would rather have an easy game to open the year, but facing a team as high of quality as Auburn in the season opener will be good for this team. Season openers are when many teams are upset because programs have yet to play a game and are seeing where they are at after an offseason of preparation.
That's not to say the Hogs are going to go into Auburn and pull off the upset, but their chances will be better than if they played the game midway through the season. Even keeping it close would do wonders for Arkansas' confidence moving forward.
After the Auburn matchup, the Razorbacks will have a game against Nicholls State in Fayetteville to make improvements in areas that were exposed against the Tigers.
The Hogs should have no problems with Nicholls State, which will not only serve as a game to work on problems from the previous week, but also to iron out wrinkles and prepare for their out-of-conference road game at Texas Tech on Sept. 13.
The game will be the Red Raiders' first true test of 2014, as they face Central Arkansas and UTEP in their first two games.
Texas Tech finished 2013 on a five-game losing streak after starting 7-0 and has a lot to work on itself. A win here for the Hogs would be a big momentum pusher, but the big question will be whether they can stop the Red Raiders' air raid. If Arkansas can slow it down and run the ball effectively, keeping the Texas Tech offense off the field, it can come away with the W.
The following weekend, Arkansas welcomes Northern Illinois. Someone who doesn't closely follow college football would chalk this up as an automatic win, but it will be anything but a gimme.
Though the Huskies lose quarterback Jordan Lynch, they still will have a solid squad that Arkansas mustn't take lightly. As long as the Hogs don't overlook Northern Illinois and come to play, they should be able to handle the Huskies.
To close out the first month, Arkansas will play in the voluptuous AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, versus the Texas A&M Aggies.
The Razorbacks played the Aggies close this past season and that was with Johnny Manziel on the field. There's a good chance he'll opt to enter the 2014 NFL draft, but NFL.com's Chase Goodbread reported that the phenom could return if he's projected to go after the first round.
It's going to be a very tough challenge for Arkansas to down the Aggies next year. Even if they don't have Johnny Football under center, Texas A&M returns the bulk of its starters on both sides of the ball.
By the end of September, Bielema and the Razorbacks will have a very clear picture of where they are. Huge tests early on in 2014 means Arkansas is going to have to get much better in the offseason.
There's an opportunity for the Razorbacks to grab some marquee wins and build early momentum, but there's also a chance that Arkansas could come out of the first month limping.
Projected Record After September: 3-2 (0-2 SEC)
Arkansas gets its first bye week following the Texas A&M game, and it couldn't come at a better time with the Hogs' next game against Alabama.
The Crimson Tide are losing at least four starters on both sides of the ball to graduation and maybe more if some underclassmen enter the draft, with the biggest loss being quarterback AJ McCarron. Arkansas has been sandblasted the past two years by Alabama, being outscored 104-0.
With the Crimson Tide losing some key pieces and the matchup being in Fayetteville, 2014 will be the best opportunity for the Hogs to beat Alabama for the first time since 2006. The Crimson Tide seem to reload when they lose key players, so just because they are losing a few big-time contributors, don't expect their stock to be down coming into the contest.
It's been seven years since Arkansas beat Alabama, and it's going to take a near flawless game for the Razorbacks to end that streak.
Once that game has passed, the Georgia Bulldogs come to Little Rock on Oct. 18 in Arkansas' only game at War Memorial Stadium in 2014.
Like Alabama, the Bulldogs lose their record-setting quarterback in Aaron Murray. Not only do they lose Murray, but also three starting linemen and tight end Arthur Lynch. Those losses would be a much bigger factor in this game if it were earlier in the season. However, with it being a mid-season game, Georgia should have the time to get acclimated to its new starters, though it could come into play if it struggles in the games before.
On the other hand, Georgia returns every starter but one on the defense, barring any players jumping to the draft. It could very well come down to whether the Arkansas offense can make enough plays to pull out the victory.
To close out the month, the Hogs host UAB on Oct. 25 in another game to work out kinks. In this day and age, you can never take an opponent lightly, and the Razorbacks will have to come to play.
Projected Record After October: 5-3 (1-3 SEC)
November and Final Analysis
The home stretch in the SEC is never easy, but in 2014, the Hogs should be playing for a spot in a bowl game.
The final string of games starts on Nov. 1 with the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Head coach Dan Mullen was on the hot seat entering November, but the Bulldogs beat Arkansas in overtime, then shut down Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl to finish 6-6 and earn a bowl bid, securing his job for 2014 according to Tom Layberger.
After beating Mississippi State 12 out of 13 times from 1999 to 2011, the Bulldogs have won the last two meetings. They found their quarterback of the future in Dak Prescott, who, despite splitting time with Tyler Russell, passed for over 1,600 yards and ran for 751 and 11 touchdowns.
Starkville is a very noisy environment, especially with the cowbells blaring. A win here could catapult Arkansas into its final three games, though that will be easier said than done.
There's a little switch up in the schedule for the next match on Nov. 15. After the Hogs' second and last bye week, they host LSU in what is usually the final game of the regular season for both teams.
Whatever both teams' records are, you can throw them out the window in the Battle for the Golden Boot.
When Arkansas and LSU meet, it almost always comes down to the final few possessions. The 2013 season was not kind to the Razorbacks, but they nearly beat the Tigers in Death Valley. Expect another down-to-the-wire grudge match in 2014. Home-field advantage is huge anytime these two teams meet, which is good news for Arkansas with the game being in Fayetteville.
The Hogs close their 2014 campaign with a road and home game, starting with Ole Miss on Nov. 22. The Rebels are an up-and-coming program, but like LSU, Arkansas versus Ole Miss is typically a close contest.
Ole Miss loses just one starter on offense and three on defense. The Rebels have very big, physical receivers, and the key matchup could be the Arkansas secondary against Ole Miss' wideouts. The Hogs will also need to play soundly on defense and avoid letting it get into a shootout.
The regular season closes for the Razorbacks with a trip to Columbia to face the Missouri Tigers on Nov. 29.
Missouri got a bid to the Cotton Bowl and won the SEC East in its first season in the nation's toughest conference. They were expected to take their punches before accomplishing something like that, but make no mistake, the Tigers are full of very talented players.
The biggest blow is losing senior signal-caller James Franklin, but with it being the final game of the season, the quarterback change shouldn't be a factor.
As stated, Arkansas should be vying for a bowl bid come November. The Hogs can win each of the last four games, but don't expect them to sweep the slate in the last month. Teams are at the top of their games come the end of the season, and the Razorbacks will have to be at the top of theirs to avoid ending 2014 on a sour note.
The Hogs didn't win a game in the SEC for the first time since joining the conference. It's not realistic to think they will have the type of turnaround Auburn did this year, but Arkansas not winning a conference game for the second season in a row isn't realistic either.
While there is a lot Bielema will have to address this offseason, the Hogs should be much improved in 2014. The duo of Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins is only going to get better, and the wideout position saw some guys step up to end the year, especially Keon Hatcher.
The defense was gashed in many games, but it returns seven starters and in the four lost, they have guys stepping in that played key roles throughout the year.
Ultimately, the success of the Razorbacks next season could come down to quarterback play, which plagued them all of 2013. Brandon Allen is going to have to win his job in the offseason after having a very inconsistent year.
Regardless, Arkansas should make a return to the postseason and put away a forgettable 2013 season in the process.
Projected Final Record: 7-5 (3-5 SEC)
All player stats are from ESPN.com. For more information on the Arkansas Razorbacks, follow Bryan Heater @BHeaterRivals.